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Since the beginnings of Christianity almost 2,000 years ago, there has been a close relationship between Christian beliefs and practices and the experience of poverty. This relationship has been no less true in America. Influenced by Christian teachings, Americans have long felt a duty to care for the impoverished, especially the deserving poor. English colonial promoters pictured America as a place where the destitute and criminal could find redemption. More secular thinkers have seen America as an asylum of liberty, where the opportunity to succeed could hasten material redemption. Indeed, Americans have long struggled with the contradictions between the material abundance of America and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Although Jesus clearly taught that poverty is a blessing rather than a curse, Americans have, over the course of American history, viewed poverty as a curse to rid the land of, to bring prosperity to all people.
The Gospel of Luke records Jesus, in the Beatitudes, saying, “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God”; “Blessed are the ones hungering now, for you will be satisfied”; and “Blessed are those weeping now, for they shall laugh.” Luke’s gospel, more than the other three, stresses the message of woe to the wealthy, the full, the happy, and the self-satisfied. The Apostle Paul of Tarsus, in his second letter to the Corinthians, echoed the teachings of Jesus in Luke, proclaiming that God’s power is perfected in weakness. “For whenever I am weak, then powerful I am.” Paul’s writings complemented Jesus’s stress on poverty rather than wealth, touting weakness rather than strength. The message of the New Testament is that God blesses not the rich, happy, and beautiful, but rather the hungry, sick, suffering, ugly, insecure, and frightened. Jesus also said, “you will always have the poor,” predicting that poverty will always exist, notwithstanding the plans of countless Utopian thinkers and many modern government agencies.
The response to poverty among Christians in American society has had many dimensions, ranging from condemnation to concern. Under the influence of European Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, early American communities emphasized the virtue of one’s calling: that God wished people to have set vocations by which they contributed to the community. Work and the acquisition of material goods was not a sin, as Medieval Catholicism sometimes portrayed it, but a virtue. German sociologist Max Weber called this virtue of moneymaking “the Protestant Ethic.” During the seventeenth century, many Christians believed that God required a new exodus of the chosen people to go on an errand into the wilderness to spread the Gospel and to establish a New Jerusalem in America. Puritans of New England, in particular, brought their Protestant ideas of hard work and personal sacrifice to bear on the problem of poverty, concluding that God rewarded dedicated servants but allowed the impoverishment of the idle. The poor were the cause of their own suffering by means of idleness. “A ‘Diligent’ man is very rarely an ‘Indigent’ man,” declared Cotton Mather in his 1701 essay, A Christian at His Calling. Mather argued that God wished each human to have a distinct calling that resulted in work, which was the only way to defend oneself against the temptations of Satan. Old Testament writings such as Proverbs provided clear support for this point of view. Widows and orphans, of course, were poor by chance rather than by choice, and the Puritans cared for them accordingly, even if they assigned their unfortunate condition to God’s will.
The Puritan approach to poverty continued to influence America long after the days of Cotton Mather. For example, one of Mather’s descendants, Jeremy Belknap, who was a minister in Dover, New Hampshire, during the years before and after the Revolutionary War, continued to preach sermons against idleness even after he had rejected the Calvinist teachings of his fathers. On a journey to upstate New York in 1796, accompanied by his friend and fellow minister Jedidiah Morse of Charlestown, Massachusetts, Belknap condemned the Oneida Indians for choosing idleness and poverty over diligence and prosperity. “Idleness is the sin that easily besets them,” he wrote, “and is the parent of many other vices.” The men thought that their role was to fight and hunt, so they refused to engage in agriculture, leaving it to the women. The Indians were also beset by alcoholism.
Belknap and Morse traveled among the Indians and others in North America as representatives of the Society for Propagating the Gospel, one of the first American missionary societies, founded in 1649. A few years later, in 1657, the Scots’ Charitable Society was founded at Boston to help poor and sick Scots, many of whom had been sent to New England as servants after the English Civil War. Other such societies included the Charitable Irish Society, founded in 1737, also in Boston, and the Episcopal Charitable Society, founded in 1724.
These early American charitable societies had a long-lasting influence on the orphaned, widowed, and worthy destitute. An example is the patient work and care of missionaries—from the Society for Propagating the Gospel—among the Indians and others in North America in the small town of Gosport, New Hampshire.
Gosport was a fishing village situated at the Isles of Shoals, eight tiny islands several miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. The Isles, near the best fishing grounds in North America, were used by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European fishermen as a temporary way station where they could cut, dry, and salt their catch. There were several small fishing villages on the islands, the last of which was Gosport on Star Island. The fishers and fishwives of Gosport were rarely comfortable, and they knew poverty more than wealth, particularly in the years of economic chaos during and after the Revolutionary War. In 1800 the Society for Propagating the Gospel, being informed of the dire circumstances of the Gosport fishers, sent a succession of missionaries to help them. Jedidiah Morse, who again played a central role, journeyed to Gosport on August 6, 1800, where he baptized, catechized, preached, and performed marriages. He gave the islanders “6 Bibles, 12 Testaments, 24 Spelling books, 12 Primers, 12 Little Truths, 8 Wall Catechisms, 6 Doddridge’s Sermons to young people, 4 Doddridge’s Rise and Progress . . . 3 Psalm books,” and a copy of his Elements of Geography. Morse helped the Gosport citizens found a new parish; the meetinghouse, which was quickly constructed, was a one-room stone building that was serviceable if not ornate. In November 1800 Rev. Morse dedicated the meetinghouse and prepared articles of agreement for the fishers, prefaced with the following comment:
Whereas the islands now commonly called the Isles of Shoals, but heretofore named Smith’s Islands, in honor of the renowned Capt. John Smith, who first discovered them, have fallen into a lamentable state of decay, since the revolution war; and the inhabitants, from their extreme poverty, and other unhappy circumstances, have long been destitute of the means of religious and moral instruction; and whereas some pious and charitable persons have generously erected a commodious and durable building, to be solely appropriated to the public instruction of the inhabitants, and the Massachusetts Society for propagating the gospel have appointed a missionary to reside at the said islands, as a religious and moral teacher to the inhabitants, and an instructor of the youth; and whereas there is ground to hope for further charities from the said society, and other humane and benevolent persons, should the good effects of their present bounty be visible in the improvement of the morals, manners, and conversation of the inhabitants; and whereas from the local situation of the said islands, it is very difficult to resort to the laws for the decision of disputes which unavoidably arise.
Such organizations as the Society for Propagating the Gospel were middle class in membership, temperament, belief, and morality. Early nineteenth-century evangelical Christian groups retained the colonial view toward the poor: that immorality and vice resulted in poverty. Yet colonial attempts, centered on the almshouse and workhouse, had failed. What was needed, these reformers thought, was direct intervention by religious activists in the area where poverty flourished—the city. This required a shift in viewpoint: from seeing poverty as an exclusively moral issue to adopting the view that an impoverished urban environment provided a negative influence, especially on youth, that could encourage sinfulness. This recognition required that the answer to poverty was not locking up and isolating the poor, but rather reforming their ideas, habits, and environment.
During the 1800s urban population expanded, and with it came the negative consequences of city life—prostitution, alcoholism, crime. Christian reformers responded with a variety of approaches and organizations aimed at changing the lifestyles and morality of the urban poor. One approach was the religious tract movement, in which middle-class Protestant women went to poor urban neighborhoods to distribute pamphlets directed toward moral and religious reform. Another approach was the Sunday School movement in Protestant churches, the aim of which was to bring poor children to a caring, religious, middle-class moral environment, to help them break from the patterns of poverty. Some of the most notorious slums in New York City succumbed to the efforts of middle-class Christian missionaries. Protestant women set up a mission—Murderer’s Alley and Den of Thieves—right in the heart of the New York slum.
Indeed, nineteenth-century New York was a center of middle-class efforts to curb poverty. For example, the New York Tract Society spawned the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) in 1843. The AICP, led by Robert Hartley, advocated active intervention, both morally and environmentally, in New York slums. Another example was the Children’s Aid Society, founded by Charles Loring Brace in 1853, which provided numerous services for New York children, ranging from classes—to teach occupational skills and reading—to summer camps. Brace believed that removing children from the city and taking them to the country was a justifiable environmental shift that could hasten moral reformation and break the cycle of poverty. Orphans from the city boarded Orphan Trains that took them West, where they would work as indentured servants for farm families until they reached adulthood. Orphan Trains brought thousands of children to the western United States from the 1850s to the 1920s. In The Dangerous Classes of New York (1872), Brace wrote that “Christianity is the highest education of character. Give the poor that, and only seldom will either alms or punishment be necessary.” Boston minister and missionary Joseph Tuckerman advocated single-family dwellings as the means of achieving Christian moral reform. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which was founded in England and arrived in New York and other American cities in the 1850s, was committed to helping prevent newcomers to the city from falling into sin. During times of economic crisis, such as the Great Depression, YMCAs provided direct relief to the urban poor. Another charitable institution founded in Great Britain, the Salvation Army, arrived in New York in 1880; henceforth the Salvation Army spread throughout America, bringing its combination of evangelical Christianity and work on behalf of the poor. With the increase of Catholic immigration to America in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church became significantly involved in helping the poor, especially the young, through orphanages. For example, in 1809 Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the Sisters of Charity at Emmitsburg, outside Baltimore; the Sisters devoted their lives to helping the poor.
By the end of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the Progressive movement, the middle class viewed the poor as different—not quite equal, yet deserving of Christian social justice. This was the attitude of reformers such as Jane Addams, founder of Hull House. Addams was wealthy and educated, completely unlike the poor that she helped. Nevertheless, she felt a calling to use her resources: and energies to help the impoverished of Chicago. During the Progressive Era, Christian poor relief continued to be met by private individuals or organizations because the federal government had not yet taken a large role in poor relief. But this changed with the Great Depression, which brought about such suffering that the federal government, centered on the New Deal of the 1930s, became an active participant in helping the poor, eclipsing private and religious charities.
Even as the federal government becomes more involved in issues of poverty, private Christian charities continue to work to help the poor, answering Christ’s call to his followers to imitate His concern for the impoverished. Soup kitchens, which became a symbol of private charity during the Great Depression, have continued in better economic times to be a symbol of the Christian concern to feed the hungry. The main soup kitchens across America include the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Manhattan, which has served meals for the homeless and hungry since 1982; the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, sponsored by local churches, also in operation since 1982; the Open Door Community of Atlanta, which has served meals for over a decade; and the Iron Gate soup kitchen of Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has served more than 300 meals daily to the hungry for over twenty years.
John Kenneth Galbraith argued in The Affluent Society (1956) that poverty is essentially a premodern phenomenon and that, in the age of modern industry poverty, if it has not been eliminated, is less dominating over a society and economy than it once was in an agrarian, preindustrial society. However, the many antipoverty programs of Christian agencies—which call on Christians to make ending poverty a central social issue—as well as the continuing role that the issue of poverty plays in American politics, indicate that poverty is very much a contemporary issue in America.
- Boyer, Paul, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978);
- Brace, Charles Loring, The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty Years’ Work among Them (New York: Wynkoop and Hallenbeck, 1872);
- Bushman, Richard L., From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967);
- Christian Churches Together (www.christianchurchestogether.org);
- Lawson, Russell M., The American Plutarch: Jeremy Belknap and the Historian’s Dialogue with the Past (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998);
- The Constitution and By-Laws of the Scots’ Charitable Society of Boston (Cambridge: Wilson, 1878);
- “The Town Records of Gosport, New Hampshire,” New England Historical and Genealogical Society (1913-1914);
- Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons (New York: Scribner’s, 1958).
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